How Pierre's story kindled respect

If you want to challenge assumptions about diversity, skip the litany of "facts tell a story." Better yet, tell your own story or encourage someone else to tell theirs. That's what I learned in my years as an educator and consultant. Not sure if you believe this? Let me tell you a story.

One consulting job took me and some colleagues to an urban nursing home in the northeast United States. Tensions between the predominantly white administrators and nursing staff and the predominantly Caribbean nurse's aides and assistants had boiled over into open hostility. We were hired to figure out the nature of the problems and how to solve them. Believing that insiders know their own situation better than any outside "experts," we pulled together a diverse group of staff, residents, and family members to help analyze the situation.

First we needed to help the members of the group develop trust in one another and a willingness to work together. During a day-long session, after various discussions and exercises, people were starting to relax. An undercurrent of "us vs. them" remained in the room, however.

In the afternoon, we got to the "diversity quilt" exercise where everyone was to use a variety of art materials to create a "quilt" square representing that which they were proudest of about themselves and their racial or ethnic heritage. After some grumbling comments about this being "silly kids' stuff," folks dived into the markers, fabric, colored paper, scissors, and glue and got to work.

When the squares were done, everyone had a chance to show off what they'd made and what it meant. We all politely listened as people talked about skills, hobbies, and accomplishments, and the pride they felt about the Polish food or Irish music or Caribbean dancing they'd learned from their grandparents.

Then it was Pierre's turn. A soft- spoken nurse's aide who had only been in the US for a short time, he provided the most basic care for the residents. Pierre's workdays were filled with emptying bedpans, bathing residents, and coaxing elders to eat just a bit more of the supper he fed them. I could see from the looks on the faces of the administrators and nurses at the table that they didn't expect much from Pierre.

Pierre spoke through a big smile, in heavily accented, deliberate English. Pointing to part of his square, he said, "I'm proud of my country's music, that's what this picture is." Pointing to a drawing of a stick-figure person sitting at a desk with a stack of books on it, he beamed as he said, "The work we are doing in this group to understand the problems here in the nursing home reminds me of what I studied when I was in graduate school back home. This is me with my books. I am proud of the graduate degree I have in organizational management."

Looking around the circle I saw more than one jaw drop. Many eyes grew wide. After a short silence, one of the other nursing assistants laughed out loud and said with reflected pride, "That's great, Pierre! Maybe you can help us all figure out what we need to change."

The nursing director and administrators didn't say much beyond a polite acknowledgment of what Pierre had said. But their eyes spoke louder than words. They regarded Pierre very differently from the way they had just moments before. Replacing their paternalistic superiority was a look of amazement and a bit of chagrin.

Even better, in the weeks ahead, was the difference in the way they treated Pierre - and soon, the other aides from the Caribbean. I noticed administrators stopping in the hall to talk with Pierre, ask his opinion, and listen closely to his response. I heard other assistants speak of the added respect with which they were being treated. Pierre's story didn't solve all the problems in the nursing home, but it did crack open the door of possibility.

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